“Now boys with squibs and crackers play,
And bonfires blaze turns night to day.”
‘Poor Robin’s Almanac’ dated 1677
For many people today, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night means a chance to get together to watch fireworks, and perhaps attend a bonfire party somewhere in the community. The collection of a ‘Penny for the Guy’ may have died out, but most understand that the celebration has something to do with the attempt in 1605 by Roman Catholic opponents of the Protestant Reformation to overthrow the religious settlement of the previous fifty or so years.
What is not so well known is that this celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot resulted in passing of the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Act”. This, in theory, made attendance at Church compulsory on the day, to praise God for saving the King and his Parliament. Whether or not they went to Church, the people used the event to make merry and light bonfires, on which, until the late eighteenth century, they burnt effigies of the Pope. This often combined with a fear of Catholics, variously seen as agents of foreign enemies, especially the French, to create an atmosphere in which violence against any symbol of authority could easily ignite.
By the nineteenth century, it was common for Bonfire Night to see organised gangs of young men erupt into general protest and disorder. The years in particular between the late 1840s and early 1860s, saw 5th November celebrations turn into a night of riot and arson. Towns such as Guildford, Horsham and Lewes became notorious for the level of violence seen on this date over many years. This was also a period of more widespread unrest throughout the country. Protest against social and economic changes starting in the 1830s, led to confrontation with authority. This was heightened by the gradual weakening restrictions placed on members of the Catholic faith, especially the return of Catholic bishops in 1850.
In March 1859 the Anniversary Days Observance Act repealed the Observance of 5th November Act, removing the religious element to the celebrations. Although Guy Fawkes Night was not included, the idea of official public holidays was made official by the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. Thereafter, the growth of proper police forces in the counties also allowed the suppression of unrest and violence around 5th November celebrations.
By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Bonfire Night had taken a place in the national calendar that would have been familiar to us today, although the celebrations would have been much more elaborate. A wonderful picture of preparations for 5th November at the start of the twentieth century is provided by the memories of Daisy Warren, and captured in a well-known photograph that has a prominent place in Crawley Museum.
As recorded in her notebooks, and transcribed by Pat Bracher, Daisy remembered:
‘Bonfire Night was the night of the year. About 4 o’clock, soon after we came out of school, the Bonfire Boys started to get ready in Heritage’s Yard. There were decorated carts, and waggons, men on horses, lots of men dressed in anything they could get hold of, many in their sister’s or any woman’s clothes and hats, some most daring displaying white or pink cotton underwear. Before the day, hundreds of tar balls were made, these were mounted on poles and lighted and carried. The bands were there, and lots and lots emerged from Heritage’s … Heritage’s to us meant fireworks.’
‘This was the Duke of York’s Coffee House with a small paned window with boxes of cheap sweets covered with a sheet of glass … Let us go into the shop, a small door with a jangly bell. A stuffy smell of oil lamp, tobacco, aniseed, gunpowder and bread and cheese and humanity … They had another small window with a lace curtain, this was drawn over all the year until getting near Bonfire Night when the curtain was removed and there were bangers, Catherine wheels, flowerpots, jumpers, Chinese crackers 40 a penny and Roman candles.’
Heritage’s is an interesting example of the kind of establishment found in a small town like Crawley. The Heritages were clearly very respectable and dutiful people, nonconformist in religion and temperance in belief. At the Duke of York’s Coffee House, they gave aid to tramps on their way between workhouses:
‘Inside on one side of the shop were two or three tables with pew-like seats … Usually sitting in these pews were some very dilapidated specimens – tramps. We hadn’t any workhouse, the nearest being Horsham, Redhill and East Grinstead. These tramps were discharged from Horsham in the morning to walk to the nearest workhouse. They were given food cards to be taken to Heritages … they would supply them with bread and cheese.’
Mr. Heritage is described as ‘… a little man with a bowler hat and whiskers in a very heavy overcoat.’ He hired out his waggonette for trips into the countryside, and drove ‘local preachers to various outlying mission halls.’ He ‘… had seen better days, having been a reader at Cambridge University, but I do not know if that was so … as far as I was concerned, he lived on the box (of his wagon) in his overcoat.’
Mrs. Heritage ‘… was very ladylike in her speech and shut her eyes when she talked’!
‘Scenes from a Window in Crawley High Street from 1900 to 1912 on the London-Brighton Road’. Daisy Warren, transcribed and edited by Pat Bracher 1992.
Graham Crozier. October 2023.